Moroccan Jews in France

French Jews protesting the killing of an elderly Jewish Woman (Thibault Camus AP)

France has a flourishing Moroccan Jewish community. Most Jews of Moroccan heritage have integrated well into the Jewish community and French society. Some are political and cultural leaders. Together with Jews of Algerian and Tunisian heritage, Moroccan Jews are considered Sephardic Jews. They are the majority of French Jews, with a larger population than Ashkenazi Jews whose heritage is from France and Central and Eastern Europe. Antisemitic feelings and actions threaten the French Jewish community. In 2019, the Jewish population of France was 448,000 persons. A 2002 survey identified 500,000 French Jews and 75,000 non-Jews in Jewish households. Almost 100,000 French Jews emigrated to Israel and other countries from 2000-2019.

Relationship with France during the Protectorate and after Moroccan Independence

Moroccan Jews had a special relationship with France under the French Protectorate (1912-1956). Officially, they remained subjects of the Sultan and managed their own affairs under Moroccan law. However, the French Protectorate Administration, which was the real power in the country, treated Jews better than Muslims but not as well as European settlers. Many Jews took advantage of their preferred status by working for and supporting the Protectorate. Doing so helped maintain the security of the Jewish community as well as open economic opportunities. However, it raised questions among Muslims about the patriotism of the Jews and their future in an independent Morocco.

Alliance Israelite Universelle primary school in Casablanca (Rachel Hoffer)

To strengthen its Arab identity after independence, the Moroccan government required that public schools and university teach in Arabic rather than French.  These changes did not affect Jewish students attending the francophone schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and other private francophone schools.  However, those Jewish students who wished to pursue university education lacked the Arabic skills to study in Morocco. Instead, they attended French universities. In the decades since independence, Moroccan Jews have frequently emigrated to France to live near their children after they attended university or married.

Algerian Jews in France

The status of Moroccan Jews differed from that of Algerian Jews, who were made French citizens in 1870 and lived under French law. Algerian Muslims, unlike Algerian Jews, did not receive French citizenship. As citizens, Algerian Jews were eligible to move to France. The 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence led to the emigration to France of almost the entire community of about 175,000 Algerian Jews. About 75,000 moved to France in the 1950’s and 100,000 in the 1960’s.

Moroccan Jewish Emigration to France

Some Moroccan Jews emigrated to France prior to Morocco’s independence in 1956.  Others left for France when emigration to Israel was difficult from 1956-58 and officially banned from 1958-61.  In the 1960’s, about 100,000 Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel, but tens of thousands moved to France.  Of Morocco’s 35,000 Jews in 1971, about 20,000 moved to France over the next 50 years while others moved to Israel and other countries. In general, the Jews who moved to Israel were poorer and less well educated than those who moved to France. In addition, most of those emigrating to France were graduates of the French-sponsored Alliance Israelite Universelle schools, in which they studied French and French values.

North African Jews in France

In France, immigration of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian Jews completely changed the ethnic composition of the Jewish community. From about 300,000 persons in 1950, the Jewish population increased to 530,000 in 1970. In 2020, about two-thirds of France’s 450,000 Jews are of North African origin. Most Jews of North African heritage are second or third generation Algerians. However, tens of thousands trace their heritage to Morocco.

In France, Moroccan Jews encountered a new political environment.  In independent Morocco, Jews were citizens living as a minority under a strong king with a weak parliament. Islam was the state religion, and a Rabbinic court administered Jewish family law. In France, they live in a parliamentary republic dedicated to laïcité (the French version of secularism that discourages religious involvement in government affairs and forbids government involvement in religious affairs). Laïcité also maintains a strong separation of religion and state, where all inhabitants are subject to civil law. The French Jewish Consistory is the central institution supporting Jewish religious institutions, rituals and education and overseeing Jewish law.  Unlike Algerian Jews who were already French citizens, it took many years for Moroccan Jewish immigrants to gain French citizenship.

Like any immigrants, Moroccan Jews had difficulties integrating into French society. However, their adjustment was easier than Algerian Jews, who were less educated, poorer and had less relevant job skills. The French Jewish community and international Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution community, assisted North African Jewish immigrants. The French Government provided additional assistance to Algerian Jews, since they held French citizenship.

North African Jews and the Jewish Community

Prayer at the Great Synagogue of Sarcelles, France (National Geographic William Daniels)

Prior to the arrival of North African Jews, most French Jews lived in Paris. North African immigrants established themselves throughout France, but particularly in the South. In 2020, more than half of French Jews live in Paris, but large populations of Jews with North African heritage live in the Paris suburbs, Marseille, Toulouse, Nice, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Lyon.

French Jewish institutions had difficulty adjusting to such a large number of Sephardic Jews, whose prayers, customs and rituals were different from those of the Ashkenazi Jews. Efforts to share synagogues created tension, particularly in Paris.  Elsewhere, North African Jews added new life to Jewish institutions whose communities had been too small to sustain them. Today, most French synagogues follow Sephardic rites, and a number of them use Moroccan rituals.

The increase in the Jewish population through North African immigration enabled the Jewish community to establish new kosher restaurants, Jewish schools, community centers and Jewish radio stations. In addition, departments of Jewish studies at universities grew. Research and publications on Jewish topics expanded greatly.

French Moroccan Jews marry frequently with other Jews, but some intermarry. Between 1966 and 1975, about 5% of Moroccan Jews intermarried, compared to 48% of Algerian Jews. In 2018, 31% of French Jews had non-Jewish spouses.

Ashkenazi Jews, including those who emigrated from Eastern Europe after World War II, adapted better than Moroccan Jews to expectations of keeping religious practices and beliefs private (laïcité). Moroccan Jews were not used to separating their roles as citizens and Jews. For example, they reacted negatively to a 2004 law that prevented both Muslims and Jews from wearing visible religious symbols in public schools. Second and third-generation descendants of Moroccan immigrants, including the children of intermarried couples, have shown more interest in exploring their identity than their religion.

Antisemitism in France

Moroccan Jews faced antisemitism from French settlers in Morocco, particularly during World War II. In France, Moroccan Jews encountered similar views from native French. In the 1950s and 60s, many non-Jews viewed pieds noirs, French exiles from Algeria, with derision. They also expressed antisemitic feelings towards Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian Jewish immigrants.  In the last 50 years, right-wing antisemitism has decreased, although it still exists among some supporters of the National Front political party and the Yellow Vest movement.

Many North African Muslims emigrated to France in the 1960’s and 70’s, seeking greater employment opportunities. More Algerian Muslims immigrated during the Algerian civil war of 1992-2002. By 2005, the North African population in France was about 3.5 million. North African Muslims had severe difficulties integrating into French society, often living in crime-ridden, high unemployment, Muslim-majority neighborhoods that received poor social services. In this environment, a small percentage of Muslim inhabitants were radicalized, supporting jihadist movements that fought for a greater role for Islam in French secular society. These groups also showed solidarity with oppressed Muslims outside France, including the Palestinians. Consequently, some of them expressed antisemitic feelings and took part in antisemitic acts.

The French National Human Rights Commission has recorded hundreds of antisemitic actions and threats each year, with large increases during the 2002-2004 intifada and in 2009. Some of the significant attacks on French Jews include: 1) January 2006 – A Jewish man of Moroccan descent was kidnapped, tortured and killed; 2) March 2012 – A Muslim of Algerian descent attacked a Jewish day school in Toulouse; 3) July 2012 – A Paris synagogue was vandalized; 4) July 2014 – The Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue in Paris was attacked; 5) January 2015 – A Muslim of West African descent took Jewish hostages and killed four of them at a kosher supermarket in Paris.

Jewish Emigration from France

Between 75,000 and 100,000 French Jews emigrated between 2000 and 2019, 50,000 of whom moved to Israel. Some of them left France due to fear of antisemitism, while others have moved to Israel for political and religious reasons.

Famous Moroccan-French Jews

Gad Elmaleh in the film “The Roundup,” (La Rafle – Le jour. D’après fred sabourin)

Famous French Jews of Moroccan ancestry include:

  • Ariel Wizman, TV journalist, DJ, musician and actor
  • Roger Karoutchi, Senator, First Senate Vice President, former Secretary of State to Prime Minister
  • Arthur, TV producer, host, humorist and actor
  • Simone Bitton, French-Israeli documentary filmmaker
  • Gad Elmaleh, humorist, actor, film director and singer
  • Charlotte Szlovak, cinematographer, film director and screenwriter
  • Sapho, singer
  • Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO and former Minister of Culture
  • Serge Haroche, Nobel Prize-winning physicist
  • Pierre Assouline, journalist and author
  • Marc Alain Ouaknine, rabbi and philosopher
Trailer for “Little Jerusalem” by Karin Albou

A film that provides a good feel for the opportunities and constraints of North African Jews in France is “Little Jerusalem,” directed by Karin Albou. Although the film focuses on a Tunisian Jewish family, the situation is similar for many religious Moroccan Jewish families in France.